Advanced Search

Please click here to take a brief survey

The Personal Sustainability Project
Sarah Rich, 13 Apr 07
Article Photo

Retrofitting structures and systems for sustainability requires looking beyond the market value of the components that facilitate better performance. Because better performance is the payback for the upfront investment, and often that payback keeps coming in spades once the commitment to do things differently has been made. One of the classic illustrations of this came through a case study at a United States Post Office branch in Reno, Nevada, when the management renovated the lighting system for greater energy-efficiency. They had bargained for savings on energy bills, but what came as a surprise was the increased "energy-efficiency" of the workforce in the areas of the building that underwent a retrofit. Increased quality of lighting dramatically changed the workers' sense of wellbeing, and hence their productivity, which ultimately skyrocketed the branch's savings. According to one report:

Energy savings projected for the whole building come to about $22,400 a year. The new ceiling also saved $30,000 a year in maintenance costs. Combined energy and maintenance savings came to $50,000 a year, a six-year payback. But the productivity gains were worth $400,000 to $500,000 annually - paying for the renovation in less than 12 months.

This kind of evidence can trigger some momentum under administrative, management and development teams who drag their feet against making changes for sustainability. Once it's clear that a single change can set off multiple levels of positive transformation for a company, and keep a generous sum of money in the bank, it [hopefully] becomes a no-brainer.

If you believe the media buzz, Wal-Mart seems to be catching the whole-picture sustainability bug (along with affiliate Sam's Club). It's the interminable corporate mystery for environmental detectives, trying to figure out what's what as the company announces one intention after another to systematically move through all the chambers of their massive house and clean up some giant messes. It began with fessing up to some nasty practices in overseas factories, then moved to installing renewable energy in their stores, then organic food and organic cotton on their shelves, a plan for a consumer electronics scorecard, and now they're taking a look at the "personal sustainability" of their labor force. At least their U.S. labor force...

They call this "360 sustainability" -- what they characterize as an integrated view of positive change, and a willingness to proclaim the intention to do better, even while still admittedly guilty of some serious ecological and social transgressions. The social conditions of their workers overseas, and the socioeconomic conditions of the community members in small towns where Wal-Mart stamps a giant footprint, don't necessarily factor into the Personal Sustainability Projects (PSPs), but nevertheless, it's a plan with some excellent goals to improve the health and habits of store employees. And as the mail sorters at the Reno post office demonstrated, when individuals' personal sustainability improves, the bottomline gets a boost.

The goals of the PSPs surround healthier eating and lifestyle habits, replacing inefficient lighting and home appliances with better ones, using environmentally-friendly and non-toxic home cleaning products, and getting involved in projects in one's community. The basis of PSP involves establishing self-initiated plans, so employees have numerous options and ideas from which to choose and create their own pledges towards improving their personal sustainability. This might include cutting out fast food (many Wal-Mart employees eat frequently at the McDonald's within their stores, which not only has terrible nutritional implications, but means employees don't get outside on breaks), stretching or exercising several days a week, quitting smoking, and incorporating organic food into their diets. Wal-Mart has created some incentives, such as a reduced price on healthier meal options, should employees continue dining inside the store. A bottle of water and a salad cost less than a Big Mac. The money saving incentive also carries over to pledging to become more energy efficient at home, turning off the television, and taking preventative health measures through fitness programs, all of which promise a little more savings in the bank.

According to the press release:

As one example of a PSP, Kim Nicholson, a membership sales representative for Sam’s Club, received training to present messaging from Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth. She is now speaking to other associates, community members, friends and family on global warming.
“It’s about everyday choices,” Nicholson said about sustainability. “Together, if we all do what is right – change light bulbs to compact fluorescent light bulbs, winterize your house – we can make a more sustainable world.”
Nicholson is also educating her family and her fellow associates on the value of eating well and exercising. During a recent meeting at Wal-Mart’s home office, she succeeded in persuading the company to offer a salad and water combination for the same price as a slice of pizza and soda in all Sam’s Club Cafés.
“Now associates can eat healthy at an affordable price during lunch,” said Nicholson.

The Personal Sustainability Project is personal. It's primarily about one's life outside the workplace. And it speaks very well to a shift in Wal-Mart's perspective towards understanding how physical health, psychological wellbeing, social connections and lifelong learning about one's environment feeds the health of a business.

At mass scale, it's hard not to wonder how dogmatic the gospel of green becomes, particularly after the ideals have lived for so long within a narrow demographic of individuals with funds enough to justify extra expenses on toxin-free products and organic food (the photo at the top of the NY Times article looks like a snapshot of a revival service). But there's a good deal of encouragement for employees to share helpful ideas with one another, with their families and neighbors, as with the case of Kim Nicholson. It's a sensible approach for suggesting better lifestyle choices within natural groups and networks rather than preaching directives that could make someone feel that their way of life is being judged.

The obstacle to widespread sustainable practices which is most successfully addressed by Wal-Mart is almost inarguably access. Who can more sweepingly and rapidly make organic food cheap? Who can more easily shift demand for conventional cotton to a demand for pesticide-free varieties? Who can more effectively influence electronics manufacturers to design their products for a less destructive end-of-life scenario? Probably nobody.

So why do hardcore enviros still cringe at the W-word? Is it merely a residual and non longer useful aversion to big business in the green market? Or is there real reason to be wary of the arrival of such a giant on the scene? An article on the PSP in The New York Times included commentary from one of the members of that hardcore set, Adam Werbach, former president of the Sierra Club, who has been a leading participant in crafting Wal-Mart's newest self-improvement agenda.

At first, Mr. Werbach rebuffed Wal-Mart, assuming the project was a public relations stunt. But Mr. Werbach — who, in the late 1990s, chastised environmentalists in speeches and essays for failing to reach average Americans — said he realized that by ignoring Wal-Mart, “I would be saying no to the one company that spoke to basically every American.”

The mystery of Wal-Mart's authenticity may go unsolved for some time to come, but there's no arguing Werbach's point. The power of Wal-Mart to reach people in nearly every corner of the country (and beyond) is a profound opportunity, if seized responsibly, to infuse sustainability into everyday life. And there's almost nobody out there who doesn't need a dose of personal sustainability.

Creative Commons Photo Credit

Bookmark and Share


Wal-mart has cut the gordian knot, the false choice between profit and environmentalism. They've figured out that waste costs money, and the less money you spend burning electricity and gasoline, the lower your environmental impact and the higher your profits.

They won't stop until they've mined every last economically-recoverable penny of waste out of their systems, as they did for logistics and, alas, labor.

I had a rather good piece on that which was never published.

Anyway, these kinds of steps need not be limited to the corporate sphere:

was a piece I wrote here on WC about how to collaborately solve large scale environmental problems. I've had some luck applying this approach in the context of sustainable development, and am in the process of helping to bootstrap a public/private/military/ngo/volunteer partnership around the Hexayurt. It's just got a major greenlight from the US DOD and you should be reading more about it very soon.

Combined public/private partnerships was a cornerstone of the RMI approach, and it's good to see it spreading all over the world from Wal-mart to the Pentagon to each of us.

Posted by: Vinay Gupta on 13 Apr 07

Let's consider Hans Rosling's interesting work saying that improving a nation's health prior to improving wealth is more efficient than improving wealth prior to being healthy. I suppose it had to come out sometime. Happy people don't mind working and are better at it than chronically sick people.

The management practices of companies that keep a segment of their workforce off benefits to save money may not be as efficient as they seem.

Perhaps an entire country that is healthy and happy can compete in a global economy better than an unhealthy country dominated by a healthy elite. I suspect however that the empathy of our current ruler doesn't extend farther than his ivy league classmates.

Posted by: Bob Calder on 13 Apr 07

They won't stop until they've mined every last economically-recoverable penny of waste out of their systems, as they did for logistics and, alas, labor.

What happens when reducing waste stops saving money? I know some people think this will/can never happen, but I'm not sure that is realistic. How far can they take it?

Posted by: Michelle on 14 Apr 07

Capitalism is the driving the waste in the world. When we leave the idea of being better then the next Jo, then we can talk about our race being around for awhile. Wal-mart takes the lust of junk and status and draws people in. Most need to feel that their doing better, junk helps that. We have all been train through TV, Church, and Government not to care about everyone else and our planet. Crap doesn't leave the planet.

Posted by: Glen on 14 Apr 07

Glen, might I suggest you look at the environmental profiles of communist countries?

Thanks, vg.

Posted by: Vinay Gupta on 14 Apr 07



MESSAGE (optional):

Search Worldchanging

Worldchanging Newsletter Get good news for a change —
Click here to sign up!


Website Design by Eben Design | Logo Design by Egg Hosting | Hosted by Amazon AWS | Problems with the site? Send email to tech /at/
Architecture for Humanity - all rights reserved except where otherwise indicated.

Find_us_on_facebook_badge.gif twitter-logo.jpg